It’s all connected: racism, poverty, environmental assault

Cancer Alley. Source: Sophia Germer (The Times & The Advocate)

We invite you to examine environmental racism and racialized assaults on the most fundamental elements of all life: air, water, and land.

By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. It includes the equitable distribution of environmental harm and environmental benefits.

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact on the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous people caused by living near hazardous pollution. Black and Hispanic communities and Indigenous lands are exposed to more air pollution, landfills, lead poisoning, water pollution and industrial pollutants than their white counterparts. BIPOC communities also experience a higher degree of neglect than white communities have. They’re more likely to have old, flawed water and sewage systems, to live in shabby structures with lead-based paint or roaches, and to have fewer public services altogether – except for police. There is always plenty of law enforcement present in communities of color.

Non-Hispanic whites have the lowest exposure to air pollution. Over half the people who live close to toxic waste sites are people of color, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA identified high levels of automobile fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust, all of which have been linked to serious health problems. These substances are a definite carcinogen and contribute to several lung conditions, heart attacks, and possible premature deaths. The pollutant has been implicated in both asthma prevalence and severity, low birth weights, and high blood pressure.

As human rights violations go, environmental racism ranks high. Ask the people of Cancer Alley what life is like along the 85-mile stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, LA that’s lined with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. The predominately Black residents of this area are 50 times more likely to develop cancer than the average U.S. citizen. Rev. William Barber, who has been helping members of this community, referred to these conditions as a new kind of slavery.

Consider also the people of Kingston, Tennessee, where over a billion tons of deadly coal ash ended up in the Emory River near their town. People who were exposed to it contracted brain cancer, lung cancer and leukemia at high rates. A few years later, the Tennessee Valley Authority transported some of the coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama, a predominately low-income Black community, whose residents now suffer the same illnesses as the people of Kingston, TN experienced.

Artist: Alina Kwiatkoski

These issues are not confined to rural areas. The Bronx, NY has a disproportionate level of pollution. The air is so bad that in some neighborhoods, more than 20% of children have asthma – so many that the South Bronx is called “Asthma Alley.” Kids in this area are 70% more likely to be hospitalized than the rest of NYC, and 700% higher than the rest of New York State. The Bronx is considered the most unhealthy county in the entire state, and is home to the poorest congressional district in the country. Not coincidentally, the Bronx is majority Black and Brown.

Most people have heard of the catastrophic lead poisoning of the people of Flint, Michigan. City management refused to take action to correct the water pollution, which was caused when the city changed water sources and failed to adequately treat the water. Thousands of children and adults were poisoned. You may not know about the dire situation that the people of the Navajo Nation are also experiencing. Scientists measured arsenic and uranium concentrations as well as other hazardous substances in Navajo wells, ground and surface water, making much of the water unfit to drink.

Every year, more than 484,000 pounds of toxic chemicals are released from 21 different toxic facilities near a Houston Texas neighborhood that is 98% Hispanic. Pollution was so bad that the local elementary school had to be closed down.

There is more – far more – to this story, and its chapters include environmental assaults on many communities in the U.S. and globally, frequently by U.S.-owned corporations that extract the wealth from this and other nations, leaving our land, air and water poisoned. The ultimate irony is that this planet is a closed system and the pollution that kills our BIPOC kinfolk disperses into the environment that everyone shares. We do not have a “Planet B.” This one is all we’ve got. Protect the rights of Mother Earth.


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This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report